A Deep Dive into Virtual Reality's Effect on Temporal Perception
Hey everyone, we’re back again with our deep dive series! This week we’re taking a deep dive into the fascinating topic of virtual reality and how it can warp our perception of time..
Our Perception of Time
How we perceive time is an area of research that has only relatively recently garnered attention and dedicated study. In the last few decades, multiple theoretical models for how we perceive time have been proposed, including:
- Scalar Expectancy Theory (e.g. internal clock, behavior controlled by time)
- Behavioral theory of Timing (reinforcement of behaviors generates knowledge of the average amount of time between reinforcement - a Poisson process)
- Spectral Timing Model (learning to wait for something that is expected by discounting expected nonoccurrences until the expected arrival of the goal object)
- Diffusion-generalization model (time is represented spatially)
- Multiple Oscillator model (a connectionist model that uses feedback from multiple pacemakers with different periods to determine periodic and interval timing)
- Learning-to-Time model (behavior and interactions with the environment play a role in the development of temporal control)
- Packet Theory (responses occur in packets of a random number of responses, the probability of producing a packet is determined by the conditional expected time)
- Modular Theory of Learning (an extension of packet theory that includes a distinction between pattern and strength memory, the use of an operant baseline rate, and packet specifications)
- Active Time Model (competition and arousal can explain interval timing, a pacemaker or “internal clock” is not required)
(Note that this is a non-exhaustive list, and there are many more models of time perception!)
With so many theoretical models for how we perceive time, researchers have started comparing the different models. Sometimes this leads to new models, emphasizing that we still have much to learn about how we perceive time in the real world and use that perception to interact with our environment.
Recent research tells us that time perception involves a large neural network throughout the brain; there is no specific structure that controls it. In general, our understanding is that our perception of time is a combination of a variety of factors. These include attention, arousal, emotions, and environmental cues. We can find activities so enjoyable and immersive that time seems to pass by faster than usual (sometimes referred to as a “flow” state). Time can also appear to move faster if we are in a positive state and have a high approach motivation (the desire and drive to do something).
Conversely, focusing our attention on something can also make time seem to move slower, such as when we experience the oddball effect. This is an illusion that occurs when we experience novel stimuli and perceive them to last longer than they actually do. Additionally, when the possibility of a reward is combined with the oddball effect, the oddball stimuli are perceived as lasting longer than when there is little or no prospective reward. These results seemed to indicate that if a stimulus is associated with a reward, it becomes more salient, grabbing more of our attention and thus distorting how long we perceive it to last.
Time can seem to move slower if we experience awe (likely from feeling more present and “in the moment”) or fear (possibly so that we have more time to prepare to react to fear-inducing stimuli). Being in nature slows both how long something feels like it lasts and how long it actually lasts.
Our experience of time is also influenced by cues from our bodies. Recent studies have suggested that body movements, visual input, and information we receive from our tissues are connected to time perception, leading to what is called the embodied perspective of time perception in humans. This tells us that our brain’s interpretation of signals throughout our body is a crucial element of how we perceive time.
Additionally, time may not even exist but may be a construct humans use to make sense of our surroundings. See our interview with Peter and Gaby Hancock from HFES 2018 to watch our minds get blown.
Time Compression vs. Time Extension
The different speeds at which we perceive time to pass can be defined as time extension and time compression. Time extension is when we perceive time to take longer than usual, such as when we are watching something painful or when we experience prolonged eye contact. Time compression is when we perceive time to pass by quicker than usual, such as when we are playing a game or watching a television show.
Time Compression and Health
Unfortunately, time compression can have negative impacts on our health. We often experience time compression when engaged in immersive activities such as video games, watching television shows or movies, or reading. This can lead to pushing back our bedtimes by hours for “just one more” round, episode, or chapter. The disruption this has on our sleep cycle is one of the negative impacts of time compression as we typically experience it.
A consistent sleep schedule is essential for our good health and well-being. If our circadian rhythms are thrown off, it can impact our moods, lead to the development of mood disorders (e.g. depression, seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder), increase stress and fatigue, decrease productivity, impair brain functioning, and make it harder to fall asleep when it is time for bed.
Another problem with time compression is that we can lose a lot of time because we cannot keep track of it. Hours can be lost to playing games or scrolling through internet sites, leaving us little time for socializing, other hobbies, exercising, healthy eating, hygiene, or self-care. Once time is lost, we cannot get it back. This can lead to an increase in stress and frustration, as well as a decrease in quality of life, for people who often experience time compression while engaged in various activities.
The Status of VR
This brings us back to virtual reality (VR). VR technology has made huge strides in the last few years. Companies are focused on making VR headsets more comfortable and less bulky to increase their attractiveness and extend the amount of time people can wear them.
VR businesses are also looking at how to streamline their products so that end-users only need to buy the headset instead of a headset and a PC that has the appropriate specifications to work with VR headsets. One of the most well-known commercial VR companies is Oculus (owned by Facebook). They offer both a standalone VR headset and a headset that requires a PC. As the technology develops to make standalone VR headsets more affordable, we will start seeing more of these on the market and more in homes around the world.
Of course, VR is not restricted to the home environment: corporations are embracing VR, too. In our episode on the future of VR we discussed how corporations like Walmart have already begun using VR headsets as a training and communication tool for their employees. Even the U.S. military is starting to use VR as a training tool. With the increase in the adoption of VR technology across industries and consumers, it is more important than ever to discover and mitigate the potential negative effects of its use.
VR and Time Compression
Image source: UCSC
In the lab at UC Santa Cruz researchers found that participants had a greater misinterpretation of how fast time was moving in reality when they were using VR headsets versus using conventional monitors. They experienced greater time compression, taking longer to determine that five minutes had passed. Most people who have played video games on conventional monitors can attest to experiencing time compression; it makes sense that with greater immersion through the VR headset, there would be a greater experience of time compression as well.
Why would being in VR contribute to the perception of time compression? We know that a positive state and high approach motivation leads to time feeling like it is moving faster. VR experiences are typically goal-oriented (high approach motivation) and intended to induce overall positive feelings in users (achieving a positive state).
We also know that the brain relies on body movement and information from body systems to help it determine the passage of time. When using VR headsets, it may be harder for our brains to separate out and “read” the signals from our bodies due to our visual input being disconnected from our physical reality (e.g. we do not see ourselves as having a body, or our body in the VR world is different than the one we have in the real world).
Then there are environmental cues to consider. In the real world, we may be able to judge how much time has passed by the light coming through a window. With a VR headset on, we do not have access to these cues about the actual time, which can lead to a distorted idea of how much time has passed while we were otherwise occupied.
The Human Factors Connection
By recognizing the connection between VR and time compression, we can gain insight into what we need to take into account as human factors professionals when we work with VR.
Recovering from a thrown-off sleep cycle is difficult and takes time. It can be done by spending time outside, exercising, practicing good sleep hygiene, forgoing daytime naps, and stopping screen time at least one hour before bed. The most important step to resetting circadian rhythms is having consistent wake-up and sleep times. It will be up to creators to make sure that users have options to help them with keeping track of time so that they can be mindful of what is going on in the rest of their lives and achieve their wellness goals. This might include creating an awareness of actual time or set times to not play.
As we’ve discussed on the show before, companies like Facebook and Oculus are looking at making VR glasses that are almost flat up against the wearer’s eyeballs. These VR glasses are supposed to be more comfortable, even less bulky, increase the wearer’s field of view, and lighten the load on the wearer’s neck to decrease head strain. With VR headsets only getting better and more accessible, we will need to make sure that the increase in VR headset use does not turn into end-users always losing time, letting life pass them by, or causing the adverse health issues we talked about with time compression.
While the potential negative effects from time compression that we experience while using VR technology are real and serious, it is important to remember that there are many benefits that can come from this effect as well. Time compression can be a boon for patients when it comes to getting medical procedures done, such as chemotherapy or sitting through hours of dialysis treatment. VR has been found to help treat depression, PTSD, and drug addiction.
VR and augmented reality (AR) are gaining high praise as learning tools for everyone from children to medical school students to professionals. Cognitive psychology can be paired with VR and AR to address phobias. Motion sickness can be eliminated with the use of a VR headset. We can use VR to give us insight into environmental design. VR can even help to increase our peripheral vision and cognitive functioning in the real world.
Although it will be important to be mindful of the time compression effect that we experience when using VR technology (VR casinos are perhaps not the best idea from a wellness standpoint, as just one example), it will be just as essential to explore the beneficial ways we can use VR technology. We are truly only just beginning to figure out how we can use VR for more than gaming or basic communication; it will be exciting to see where we go from here.
For more Human Factors Cast content, check back every Tuesday for our news roundups and join us on Twitch every Thursday at 4:30 PM PST our weekly podcast. If you haven't already, join us on Slack and Discord or on any of our social media communities (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).
Explore Some More
- Virtual Reality Warps Perception of Time
- Human Factors Cast E207 - VR Warps Perception of Time
- Original Article: Virtual reality warps your sense of time
Our Perception of Time
- Conscious experience of time: Its significance and interpretation in neuroscience and philosophy
- An Ecological Approach to Prospective and Retrospective Timing of Long Durations: A Study Involving Gamers
- The Effect of Computer Gaming on Subsequent Time Perception
- Losing track of time through delayed body representations
- Teaching robots to perceive time - A reinforcement learning approach
- Time perception in depression: A meta-analysis
- When brain clocks lose track of time: Cause or Consequence of neuropsychiatric disorders
- When Our Bodies Lose Track of the Time
The Status of VR
- Human Factors Cast E142 - AI Powered Neuroprosthetics, Biofilm, and VR Wearable Skin
- Human Factors Cast E153 - AR/VR in Astronomy, Color Changing Bandages, and Improved Search and Rescue
- Human Factors Cast E159 - Google Glass Emotions and Teaching in VR
- Human Factors Cast E164 - Prescription Drug Drones and VR Balls
VR and Time Compression
- Movement-Contingent Time Flow in Virtual Reality Causes Temporal Recalibration
- Perception of Time in Virtual Reality
- ‘Real-time’ virtual reality and the limits of immersion
- ResearchVR Podcast: 011 - Time Perception and Dilation in VR